FBI Should Probe Florida’s Mental Hospitals

FBI Should Probe Florida’s Mental Hospitals

Welcome backwards to the Dark Ages, Florida-style.

The term “torture chamber” is outdated, but torture still occurs in Florida’s state prisons and mental hospitals.

Some types are more subtle than others. One person might get beaten or raped. Another simply gets sick and is left to die.

Nobody in charge seems outraged or ashamed, least of all Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who’s too busy attacking clean-air and water regulations on behalf of industrial polluters. Human horrors inside state institutions aren’t a priority of this administration. What cannot be covered up is merely swept aside.

The latest expose of abuse and neglect comes from the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Not surprisingly, the culprit agency is the dysfunctional Florida Department of Children and Families, which among many responsibilities is supposed to oversee state-funded mental hospitals.

Bad things sometimes happen to patients in these facilities. Terrible things.

But you’ll seldom hear about them because DCF doesn’t want you to. Even victims’ families get stonewalled.

Using laws meant to protect the privacy of patients, DCF systematically shields employees and administrators who are involved in incidents that result in serious harm and even death to patients.

Incredibly, the hapless agency itself is allowed to decide if employees committed any wrongdoing. Only then is an edited investigative file made public.

Rarely does DCF accept blame. The Times/Herald-Tribune team found that, during the last six years, 55 patients are known to have died in the care of Florida mental institutions.

Only four times did DCF investigators conclude that the death was caused by abuse or neglect. Reporters who reviewed autopsy records and police reports uncovered four other cases, and undoubtedly there are more.

DCF staunchly refuses to give out the names of hospital workers accused of harming patients, insisting that abusers are covered by the same privacy laws as the victims. It’s basically a free pass to cover up anything the agency wishes to hide.

Rachelle McNair’s son, Taurus, died last year after being punched in the head by another patient at the Treasure Coast Forensic Treatment Center in Indiantown.

After the fight, Taurus McNair was given Thorazine, an anti-psychotic drug, and taken to his room. He was dead the next time workers checked on him.

An autopsy found 10 times the normal dose of Thorazine in McNair’s blood, more than enough to stop his heart. Yet a coroner ruled his death was natural, so DCF closed the case and sealed the files.

For 15 months Rachelle McNair tried to find out how her son died. When she went to Treasure Coast to get his records, she was ordered to leave the property. (The facility is run by a private firm called Correct Care under a hefty state contract. The CEO of its originating company last year hosted a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser for Rick Scott.)

Said McNair: “My son is dead, and no one will tell me what happened … it’s sick.” What she has learned about his final hours did not come from DCF.

Patient Luis Santana died drugged in a bathtub where the water was so hot that his skin came off while hospital staffers tried to revive him. “Confirmed neglect,” the state concluded, yet refused to provide any information about the incident.

Non-lethal injuries to patients are handled with the same self-serving secrecy. A review of 580 “critical event” reports from the state’s largest mental institutions documented instances of workers assaulting, sexually molesting and stealing from patients.

But even in cases where the employees admitted their crimes, or were fired, DCF wouldn’t identify them. Names could only be obtained by searching court records and police reports — if charges were even filed.

Brutal budget cuts in recent years have made life more medieval at Florida’s mental hospitals, which were never a national model for enlightened treatment. The troubled patients in these places have been forgotten by most lawmakers, despite the high long-term cost to taxpayers of warehousing the mentally ill.

Any law that conceals their abusers must be changed. Any bureaucracy as covert and cold-hearted as DCF ought to be gutted, rebuilt from the top down.

Meanwhile the U.S. Justice Department should begin investigating abuses in Florida’s mental hospitals, just as it is investigating guard thuggery in the state’s prisons, where more than 340 inmates died last year.

The FBI can better do what Bondi and Scott won’t do. Their lack of action is as immoral as their failure to be horrified by what’s happening.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.) (c) 2015, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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